Saturday, December 03, 2011

The Little Red Hen Is Still A Jerk

One of the hallmarks of good literature is that it sparks debate, new ideas, and fresh insights into the human condition. Great literature does this across the span of centuries. It's by this criteria that I've come to conclude that the traditional Russian folk tale of The Little Red Hen is clearly a great piece of literature.

I may still feel that The Little Red Hen herself is a jerk, but as the number of comments on my post about reading the story to my class, both here and on Facebook, approaches 100, not to mention that it has been re-posted hundreds of times by now around the internet, I don't think there is any doubt as to this parable's greatness.

My take was one derived from discussions with children over the course of two years who are largely taken aback by the interpersonal relationships depicted in our version of the story. The hen comes off as outrageously mean and petty. Offering bread to her "friends" ("Who will help me eat the bread?") then snatching it away from them, chosing instead to "eat it myself." Despite my going back over the story in an attempt to emphasize the "moral" about hard work, it remained unfathomable to most of them that she wouldn't share her food even if she did do all the work.

Jake's mom Callie summed up this take on the story quite well with a quote from her mother-in-law: "Well, if that's her attitude, she's going to be doing a lot of eating alone." While Janet Lansbury found inspiration in the children's reaction, writing, "I found it surprisingly touching. The fully in the moment, forgiving nature (of) toddlers and preschoolers . . . is one of the the things I love most about them."

Many people wrote, however, to tell about versions of the story that did a "better job" of portraying the hen's unappreciated hard work, revealing her to be a sort of put upon Cinderella figure, under the thumb of loutish lay-abouts. Her act, if framed like this, comes off as an act of rebellion against "friends" who would take advantage of her. I still can't entirely support her offering of the bread, then taking it away, but under these conditions I can certainly understand how gratifying that might feel and how it puts a solid exclamation point on the end of the story.

Christine offered an alternative understanding of the story that could be brought out with a different storytelling emphasis. "The really important part of the story is when The Little Red Hen repeats each time, "Then I will." The psychological value of this story is . . . in the internal call to strengthen the will of the individual to take on and accomplish the tasks of life." I can see how this might take some of the sting out of her final "Then I will" before eating the bread herself, even if that one, unlike all the other then-I-wills preceding it, retains the taint of vengeance. But after all she's been through, I could probably let that go as an excusable aspect of the celebration of her triumph.

The more I read of your comments and emails the more I began to appreciate the genius of this folk tale on a purely interpersonal level, and understand one of the key reasons why we continue to talk about it today. What an incredible array of very important relationship skills can be addressed here, often by just slightly tweaking how we tell it.

As I was discussing this with Sylvia's mom Toby after school the other day, I mentioned that one of the challenges of using centuries old tales like The Little Red Hen with children, is that they weren't originally intended for children and contain within them a lot of "code" that goes right over the heads of kids. Toby replied by reminding me that the entire concept of "childhood" is a fairly recent historical development, which, of course, means that the old storytellers, without conveniently segmented audiences to target, really had to know what they were doing in order to hold the attention of the entire tribe. The stories that didn't do that, simply didn't survive into our time.

Which is why we still talk about The Little Red Hen. It's not just a children's story, but rather a genuine piece of great literature for all ages and stages. Many of us adults, for instance, can't help but reflect on such big concepts as "work ethic" or "charity" or "ownership" or "justice." And the more we look at it the more we see that it offers so many often-contradictory ways to view these ideas that it makes for rich, even contentious, discussion. 

Some of us see our current social and political situation in this story. I lost count of how many of you brought up the Occupy movement's message, some seeing the hen as representing the 1%, while others see her as the 99% who are defending their labor from the greedy hands of exploiters. Others took a libertarian-style stance, insisting that the hen was morally correct in insisting that she should get to keep the entire loaf because to share it would only encourage the others to continue their lazy, wasteful ways. On the other hand, Sylvia's dad David reacted to this same story by joking that the hen should have said, "You made bad choices in life. That's why you starve. Please read this Ayn Rand pamphlet."

Many of you suggested alternative versions of the story in which the hen succeeds in persuading the others to help, in which she ultimately shares, in which everyone sees the error of their ways, in which there is a happy ending for all. But frankly, good intentions aside, it's hard for me to see these attempts as anything but a kind of a Hollywood-ization of this classic that essentially robs it of its power to spark debate, new ideas, and fresh insights in an attempt to hammer home some particular social or moral message.

And this just scratches the surface of the depth and breadth of discussion I've seen in the past few days about The Little Red Hen, both here and on my Facebook page. I've even followed some of the "shares" of the post and found long threads in other places as well. Of course, it's a discussion that's been going on for hundreds of years and will likely continue for hundreds more, so fundamental are some of the issues addressed in this simple parable.

We might want this story to teach children in our charge some specific lesson about these big ideas, but I don't see how it can fairly do that, unless that message is: there's always another side to the story. No matter how much you turn it over, it's impossible see all its facets, to fully grasp its paradoxes, dilemmas, and conundrums. Each interpretation leads to more questions, more social, political, and moral gray area. The Little Red Hen can break your brain.

This, of course, is what great literature always does. In college, one of my English professors told us, "Average literature entertains, good literature answers questions, great literature opens doors." Great literature is something one comes back to over and over, revisiting it at intervals, taking something new from it each time, sparking epiphanies. 

The Little Red Hen is still a jerk, but so was Ahab (Moby Dick), so was Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice), so was David Copperfield, and so was, in their ways, just about every great literary character you can name. Which is also true of all the real people I know as well. And that's why this story will always remain a part of the work I do with young children.

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